Understanding the Dates on Your Food Can Save You Money


When is food no longer safe to eat? If you go by the date on the package, you might actually be throwing out perfectly good food for no reason.

You might be surprised to know that there is no universal system of food dates. Each company makes its own rules, often based on the date when they will no longer accept a return of their products. Here’s what those dates on the package actually mean.

Packed On

As you can probably guess, this date indicates when the food was packaged. While it might be mildly interesting to know that your canned peas were packed six months ago, it doesn’t tell you much of anything about whether the food is fresh and safe to eat.

Sell By

This date tells a store when to stop displaying a food product. However, you could still have days, weeks, or potentially even months before the food is no longer safe to eat. This date is not especially useful for consumers. You may also see it as “pull by” in some states.

Best Before

If something is labeled “best before” or “best if used by,” it means just that. The product will no longer be guaranteed fresh and tasty after that date. You can’t return it to the manufacturer after that date if it’s not fresh. However, you can continue to eat it. It might be a little stale, but certainly not unhealthy.

Use By

This is similar to “best before,” but with a stronger emphasis on quality and safety. As long as you’ve been practicing good food safety, such as keeping refrigerated foods below 40 degrees, the food should still be edible past the “use by” date.

Freeze By

Some fresh animal proteins will also have a “freeze by” date on the package. Generally, you have a small window between the “sell by” and “use by/freeze by” date on meat, poultry, and fish. Ground beef generally lasts 1-2 days after the “sell by” date, while steaks and chops can go 3-5 days. Chicken and fish should be kept no more than 1-2 days before cooking.

Expiration Date?

Many consumers mistakenly think that all dates on food packages are expiration dates. However, as you can see, food dates have more to do with quality than safety. Federal law only requires infant formula to have an expiration date.

Bottom Line

Regardless of the date on the package, your own senses are usually the best judge of whether food is safe to eat. Here are some warning signs you shouldn’t ignore:

  • Any kind of mold
  • Severely wilted or blackened produce
  • Unpleasant/altered odor
  • Packaging that has ballooned
  • Cans that are bulging or rusty

For example, fresh fish shouldn’t have a stereotypical “fishy” odor. If you can smell it, then it’s already gone too far. And if packaging balloons or bulges, it means gases have built up as the food decays. Not a great idea to eat it.

However, many foods are still perfectly safe to eat past their “best by” date. Throwing them away contributes to the tremendous amount of food waste in the United States.